February 18, 2020

The most important thing that successful schools must do.

The third article in Vicki’s blog series “Lessons I learnt during twenty years as a principal that nobody talks about much.”

We’ve all been exposed to the sorry tales chronicling the dire depths to which the behaviour of major Australian institutions has sunk during the last year or so.  Just think political indiscretions involving non-disclosures and funding spreadsheets, shocking aged care royal commission findings and the incredible outcomes of the misconduct royal commission into the banking, superannuation and financial services industry and you’ll get my drift.

What many will find equally astonishing is that in most cases, the explanation for these corporate and governmental shortcomings has been sheeted back to the single, common factor of poor organisational culture.

Claerwen Little, national director of Uniting Care Australia put it most succinctly following the aged care royal commission when she commented, “What the past twelve months of hearings has really raised… is that culture is pretty much everything.”

And after more than twenty years as principal, I concur completely with Claerwen’s sentiments.

I have always believed that, first and foremost, the schools I led should be values-driven organisations.

Neither of the two schools at which I served as principal possessed a clear set of articulated, documented school values upon my appointment. In both schools, this situation was addressed by engaging the school community during strategic reviews to determine suitable values to drive school decision making, policies, processes and behaviours. To my way of thinking, ownership of organisational values is an important element of successful culture, as opposed to the values being imported from elsewhere.

Mindful that many strategic plans do little more than gather dust during their period of “implementation”, values must become a living element of school function: all students should be able to recall,  explain and enact them, pastoral care lessons can promote them and all members of the school community should be expected to articulate and exhibit them. “Walking your talk” has become a cliché but the reality is the term describes exactly what is necessary for a meaningful culture to develop.

In fact, adherence to organisational values is also a great school management tool.  Values can become a benchmark reference during decision-making at all levels within the school and set the standards of appropriate behaviour for school staff, parents, students and board members. They become a great standard for all staff to model, including the principal and can define focus during disciplinary matters.

As necessary as positive culture is to the health of our bastions of commerce and government, I propose that its presence is even more important to our schools. Because our schools should be the formative nurseries where our eventual captains of industry are exposed to the notion of wholesome character that, if sufficiently nourished, will someday lead to workplaces of integrity and ethical conduct.

My advice to any parent considering whether a school is suitable for their children is to commence with a scrutiny of the school’s values. Are they documented, can the students, staff and principal articulate them (my experience is that you may be in for a surprise or two here in some cases) and most importantly, are there ample demonstrations of the values in action?

Send your children to the schools that answer these questions in the affirmative; not only will you be doing them a favour but one day, all of society will be in your debt too.